‘Pinky Memsaab’ is the uncooked cookie dough of a film; rich in flavor and loaded with delicious bits, but not processed well enough to reach its true potential.

Shazia Ali Khan’s ambitious project is frustrating to review because it’s an enjoyable film that demands much too great an effort to enjoy. It’s composed of the best elements a cinephile can ask for: from a terrific cast that acts its heart out, to a collection of subplots that tackle key socioeconomic issues in a refreshingly progressive manner. The elements merely pile up as the film moves along, never quite coming together to give a sense of theme.

This frustration can be best realized when one examines the brilliance of the film’s individual elements, and contrasts them against the confused heap of celluloid that ultimately manifests.

Pakistani cinema needs Kiran Malik. In everything.

The screenplay makes numerous attempts at setting Malik up for failure, either through tonal inconsistency, plot contrivances, or embarrassingly melodramatic scenes. Kiran Malik glides through the obstacle course with an almost intimidating level of grace. Malik character – Meher – is a wealthy Pakistani expatriate in Dubai; erudite, assertive, and charismatic with a generally well-hidden kernel of insecurity. Meher contrasts fabulously against her timid, submissive housemaid, played just as expertly by a showstoppingly talented Hajra Yamin.

In fact, there is almost no one in the cast that I can reasonably accuse of being off-kilter. Sunny Hinduja, playing Meher’s chauffeur, brings great energy to every scene in which he finds himself. Shamim Hilaly, in spite of a disappointingly limited role, offers a tremendous performance. Adnan Jaffar pulls the short straw as a character that’s the hardest to empathize with, but manages to play the part with a lot of depth.

The music is objectively delightful

Mehdi Hassan’s ‘Ranjish hi Sahi’ swells at the best of places, and becomes the official theme song of sorts to Meher’s strained link to her home in Pakistan.

A lesser film would insert a song for aesthetic value alone or simply to allow the audience a reprise from growingly dull exchange of dialogue. The songs in ‘Pinky Memsaab’ are unmissable because each advances the plot while soothing the senses. One features what can be best described as a training montage, in which the ‘memsaab’ schools her maid in the art of upper-class living, catalyzing her character development. Another showcases the expert application of these lessons as the maid begins to thrive in Dubai. There isn’t a single song that I’d recommend skipping.

A broken structure

As credits start to roll at the end of the film, we get a meta-commentary about the multicultural nature of Dubai, a city that speaks in many voices. Is it? Because we would’ve loved for that to have been the focus of the film. The commentary runs like an apology for a meandering tale that fails to find a dependable plot.

“We realize that this film lacked clarity and a sense of direction; saccading from one character to the next without focusing long enough on any single storyline.” says the ending in a way. “But that’s because the film was about the whole city of Dubai and not any single set of characters and their interpersonal relationships! Aha!”

With the exception of a comically long chase scene in the beginning that induces unintentional laughter, the film starts quite strong. Pinky, the maid, gets a heartwarming introduction in which her economic circumstances and ambitions are elegantly explained. Meher, the memsaab, gets an almost equally fascinating intro. The primary characters meet, chemistry is established, and the stakes are laid out. Pinky Memsaab’s two female leads will inevitably invite comparison to the film ‘Cake’, but does one better by adding a compelling working class POV rather than focusing wholly on a family drama among privileged land-owners.

What the film doesn’t do as well as ‘Cake’, is basically everything else. After investing tremendous amount of time building its lead characters, the film flies straight off the plot rail and fails to deliver a satisfying pay-off to what it spent half its runtime setting up. The characters are fired off into different trajectories, forgetting that the other even existed – until the Dubai Heritage Village marathon from the first scene is revisited in an amateurish attempt to tie up loose ends. The struggles of the working class which formed the core of the film’s first half, get drowned out by the noise of bourgeoisie marital problems and uninspired daddy issues.

The subplot involving Meher’s relationship with her father is particularly asinine. Meher’s father is an extremely Urdu character who, by his own declaration, has outgrown mainstream writers like Manto. The cause of the conflict between Meher and her father, buried beneath twenty feet of suspense, is derivative and uninteresting, and resolves almost spontaneously when the screenwriter decides it’s time to do so.

One of the most inorganic plot twists involves the sudden off-screen death of a secondary character. There is no build up to this incident and no prior medical concerns, so one can only assume that this person died of boredom after twenty minutes of vain effort to vitalize the story. To call it a ‘plot contrivance’ would be generous, because such devices are used to actually advance the plot. This death does nothing for the plot or the development of its primary characters. Instead, the death is used merely to resolve a nano-plot involving one of the film’s tertiary characters and her not being accepted by society; a plot-line that skates by so fast one barely even registers it as an issue.

The film revisits the awkward chase scene at the end, played out by two women who are clearly overdressed for an athletic event that’s one bicycle short of a full triathlon. The replayed sequences sandwich the film to give the illusion of a structured beginning and ending, but only end up highlighting the vacuousness of the journey. The central “plot” is “resolved” off-screen in a vapid voice-over in which Pinky reads out her letter to Mehr memsaab. The letter appears out of the blue just in time for the credits roll. It comes off as offensively insincere, because the last time we see her in the film, we find her running away in terror and/or disgust from Mehr, who may well have been chasing her with a flamethrower.

Characters have nowhere to go

‘Pinky Memsaab’ is odd in a sense that it evades success not because its characters are thinly drawn, but far deeper than they need to be.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, not all characters need compelling backstories and complicated motives. It’s quite alright to have a range of one-dimensional human set-pieces complementing its core characters, because they allow a story to maintain focus on what really needs to be told.

In ‘Pinky Memsaab’, there isn’t a doorknob on screen that doesn’t come with a backstory. Consequently, the film leaves the viewer emotionally exhausted fairly quickly because a human eye can only dole out a finite volume of tears for each ‘complex’ figure on screen. There are virtually no identifiable antagonists in the film. There is some reference to capitalism and economic desperation as an antagonist, but even that is toned down in the constant presence of benevolent rich people, namely Meher memsaab and her family of Islamabadi elites.

As a result, one feels for every character and wishes for each one of them to succeed. There’s no distinct party to root against, so one ends up wanting nothing to happen to anyone.

A Dubai Story?

The city of Dubai is curiously absent from a film that claims to be about Dubai. It exists clearly as a geographical location, with the word ‘Jumeira’ being shot around numerous times. However the culture and spirit of Dubai is poorly represented in the film. It’s like a production about New York that doesn’t feature cramped apartments, subway lines, and angry New Yorkers dropping the F-bomb on the slightest provocation. Instead, we get the equivalent of a Korean-American couple talking about Korean matters while sitting on a park bench overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge.

The film is centered on broader relationship drama – including love, jealousy, and ambition – that don’t involve Dubai an awful lot. In its second half, the film gives up and returns to Pakistan; a transition that excited me only because I recognized Meher’s home as belonging to a dear friend of mine in Islamabad. Dubai’s insufficient integration isn’t necessarily a flaw, except that this is what the story is forcing itself to be about. The real Dubai story is that of Pinky, a Pakistani maid making an independent living in a foreign city; a fragmented storyline that keeps fading to black every time it runs the risk of naturally approaching greatness.

A powerful story buried in cinematic wreckage

‘Pinky Memsaab’ is a film that I want to love, but it won’t let me. If only it’d let Kiran Malik and Hajra Yamin stay in the same room for ten minutes, without a deluge of over-written secondary characters pulling them apart in four different directions. If only it’d tell one story well rather than five stories that it neither has the time nor the budget to build and resolve.

It’s a bold idea worth appreciating. It’s not every day that we get to see a Pakistani movie with female leads that aren’t sexist caricatures, or sensitively explores the economic anxieties of the working class.

I offer the makers of this film my deep respect because the stories they’re trying to tell are worth listening to. We just hope to hear them in a clearer voice.

Film ‘Pinky Memsaab’ is Reviewed by Faraz Talat